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Red Herring Again

by Hans Bluedorn

Red Herring Again

For those of you who have been waiting for an election issue of the Logic Loop, here it is.

I was looking for all four of the transcripts of the presidential debates, but could only get my hands on a copy of the second debate. This was the one between Vice presidential candidates Joseph Lieberman and Richard Cheney.

When I listened to the debates, the logical fallacy that seemed to predominate the most, for there were many, was the one covered on the last loop – the fallacy of Red Herring. Red Herring, if you will remember, is where an argument is led on a rabbit trail and ends up in a different place than where it's supposed to. It is simply wandering from the subject and emphasizing superfluous material.

For example: "How can deforestation be so bad when there are so many uses for the wood?"

It must be remembered that while the misdirecting statement could be true, it's just irrelevant.

One Red Herring stood out starkly.

When speaking about the state of the U.S. military, Vice-Presidential hopeful, Richard Cheney said: 

"I think that the administration has, in fact, in this area, failed in a major responsibility.... So we're over-committed and we're under-resourced... That is a legitimate concern, and this is a very important area, in the fact the U.S. military is worse off today than it was eight years ago."

Senator Joseph Lieberman's response:

"Most important, I want to assure the American people the American military is the best-trained, best-equipped, most powerful force in the world, and that Al Gore and I will do whatever it takes to keep them that way.

It's not right and it's not good for our military – to run them down, essentially, in the midst of a partisan political debate...

...And the fact is, judging by its results, from Desert Storm to the Balkans, Bosnia and Kosovo, to the operations that are still being conducted to keep Saddam Hussein in a box in Iraq, the American military has performed brilliantly." End quote.

I do believe political question-and-answer forums are the best Red Herring breeding grounds to be found. If a politician actually gets around to answering the question asked him, before he runs out of time, it isn't because he didn't try. (It's because he just didn't wait long enough).

Lieberman's response to Richard Cheney is a long string of Red Herrings, fit to be stuffed and mounted. His first paragraph, "...the American military is the ... most powerful force in the world...," is an irrelevant point. It does not address the issue Cheney brought up of this supposedly most powerful force being stretched too thin and getting worse.

Second paragraph: "'s not good for our military – to run them down..." You should be able to recognise how irrelevant this is. Richard Cheney did not run down the military. This could be called exaggerating the opponents position, which is another logical fallacy

Third paragraph: "...judging by its results, ... the American military has performed brilliantly..." Also irrelevant. It's like saying, "How cute," when your dog rips the postman's arm off. It may be true, but says nothing useful about the situation. A stretched military would have to be brilliant to stay in business. Also, Desert Storm happened in the last administration.

Does anybody know where I can find transcripts of the other three presidential debates? Or, any election debate. I'm looking for a G. Bush/Republican fallacy to even things off.


For the past few weeks I have been working on some questions which might be helpful to ask yourself when reading or listening to the news. This is meant to help you recognise fallacies.

I have divided these questions into 4 different categories.

1. The argument.

What is the core question that is being argued? This is very important, and sometimes difficult to find in the muddied waters.

What is the arguer's position on this question? This is also important – sometimes people aren't all that clear.

How could you summarize his basic argument?

2. Definitions.

How does he define the key terms? This can clear up quite a bit of confusion in an argument. You may end up agreeing.

Do any of these definitions change meaning in the argument? For example: "I've given you my reasons for believing it, but since you never listen to reason, I might as well give up."

3. Relevance of the argument.

Does the arguer answer the question being argued over, and is he sticking solely to that issue? In other words, is what he saying relevant?

Does he introduce irrelevant topics? Topics that are not necessarily arguments but more like distractions to fluster you. Things like: "what was that your psychologist used to say?" and "Didn't you say this last time you were in drug re-hab?" which are irrelevant and confusing.

Does his evidence directly apply to the argument at hand, or does it actually prove something else?. Example: "I should eat more grass. Elephants eat grass all the time and they can live a hundred years."

4. Quality of evidence.

Are there assumptions in his argument? What are they? Presuppositions always determine conclusions.

Is he giving concrete evidence free from generalizations to support his position?

Is he limiting your possibilities in an argument? In other words is he committing the either /or fallacy? "Either you're a Republican or you're a Communist."

That should get you started recognizing fallacies.

Can you think of any other questions I could add to this list?

Copyright October 21, 2000, all rights reserved. 13635 views

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